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The Old Pembina Trail

by William Douglas

Manitoba Pageant, January 1960, Volume 5, Number 2

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

From time to time we read in books, magazines and newspapers of the Pembina trail, and invariably these references are not quite in accordance with historical facts. Not long ago one writer even went so far as to speak of the stopping places on this supposed trail which were used by the original Selkirk Settlers when they were obliged to travel south to winter at Pembina. The idea seems to prevail that what today we know as Pembina Highway (Highway No. 75) follows the original trail, but, it would appear that this highway did not come into use until the 1850s. Where then was the original track used by our Indian forbears as well as the traders and settlers at the time the settlement was formed?

No better authority can be found than the writings of Miles Macdonell, first Governor of the colonial establishment. He had reached The Forks (now the City of Winnipeg) on 30 August 1812. Twelve days later, on 11 September, he set out on his first visit to Pembina. Under that date he writes in his journal; “crossed Sturgeon River, 6 M. (miles) reach the Ferry or Passage of the Assiniboine River 6 M. ... This is a very public situation being the pass for all travellers, the resort of Indians and Buffaloe ...”

He records his journey which briefly stated tells that he

... reached the Riviere Sale (La Salle River) at 3 p.m. 16 M. (miles) ... at 3½ p.m. reached Riviere Gratieu (the Morris River) 23 M. ... Reached Red River 61 p.m. about 12 M. On the following day, September 12th, reached River Aux Prunes. Crossed the Grand Marais, a large pond of water. In the evening at Nipiminan-sipi, or Pembina River.

If corroboration of this old trail is wanted we can find it by turning again to Macdonell’s journal of the winter of 1816-1817. At this time he was en route to Fort Douglas from Fort William where Lord Selkirk was spending the winter. His party’s mission was to re-capture Fort Douglas from the North West Company’s people. Let me quote a few entries.

Sunday, January 5 (1817): Crossed River aux Prunes & put up in sight of Gratieu. 3 of our horses have given out.

Monday, January 6: Crossed the River Gratieu. An Indian came to our encampment ... informed us that Peguis is at the River Sale with about 30 Indians. Resolve to send him on with our vanguard to acquaint Peguis with our approach that he and his people may be in readiness to join us.

Tuesday, January 7: After traversing a bog reached a point where we took a long traverse to upper part of River Sale where Peguis and his Indians were hunting. Reached the River Sale at dusk. Peguis is further up the river.

Wednesday, January 8: Sent Indians ahead to acquaint Peguis with orders for him to join us at the Passage, summer road. Encamped at a meat stage of the N.W. Co. distance advanced 5 m.

Friday, January 9th: Left our encampment at sunrise. It came on to blow a storm from N.W. & cold. Snowdrift. Several of our men got frost-bitten. It was with difficulty that we could make headway against the wind. Stopped to make fire to warm us at 4 miles from Passage. Reached the Passage at sunset. Peguis was here with 9 Indians waiting for us.

This was the main road southward at that early time. In fact, it would appear to have been the only road for several years. Today it is only a memory and it is doubtful if the actual crossing can now be definitely located. Perhaps the early surveyors’ notes may give a clue. Here is a fine project for an enterprising student. It is hoped that some day the spot will be recognized and a suitable marker erected to tell posterity the route over which our original settlers as well as the aborigines of the district travelled.

See also:

Location for “The Passage” by J. S. McMahon
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 14, Number 1, Autumn 1968

Historic Sites of Manitoba: The Passage (Southboine Drive, Winnipeg)

Page revised: 29 June 2014

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